Confessions of a Reformed Toolhead


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Confessions are supposed to be good for the soul.  Yes . . . I too was a toolhead.  But somewhere between 5S and a Kaizen event on a plane to Budapest there was an opening of the mind.  A revelation of sorts that struck hard and heavy in the mind.

Books can have an impact on your thinking and as an avid reader I first came across the work of W. Edwards Deming.  The book was The Reckoning by David Halberstam.  This was a historical account of the rise of Nissan and the fall of Ford post WWII. 

Being on the tale end of my MBA program where I was taught that IT and financial statements were the future, I discovered a completely different message about quality and improvement.  A contrarian by nature I began to research Dr. Deming and my previous reading on works like The Art of the Deal and In Search of Excellence came to an end.  Instead, now I was reading Wheeler, Joiner, Haller, McConnell, Scherkenbach, Tribus, Scholtes, Neave and many others.

These works made sense and back then I knew it would be a hard fought battle for Americans to absorb this thinking.  Americans, after all, are the architects of scientific management theory and command and control thinking.  Better thinking was going to be difficult because management needed to change thinking and the rush for profits to reap rewards could be achieved through financial manipulation, outsourcing and other short-term thinking.

The use of SPC and many of the other tools (now labelled as “lean and six sigma tools” were in existence with the continual improvement movement that many of us followed.  So long before tools were lean . . . I was a toolhead.  Later, this became the fundation of my consulting practice.

One thing I have learned in the past several years is that management loves tools, but they also like schedules, projects, strategic plans and technology.  I could put on a seminar with little advertising as organizations were hungry for quality. 

Armed with Dr. Deming’s thinking and a set of tools, I went out to change the world . . . but the world changed me (and I wasn’t even in Washington).  Management wanted the Deming method fast and soon short-cuts were established JIT manufacturing, teams, fishbone diagrams, quality circles,etc. – all with good intent, but all with the wrong thinking.

Management engaged for awhile until the next short-term thinking fad came along, then it was up to middle management and the front-line to make this improvement thing happen.  There were balance sheets and income statements to manage, targets to set and performance appraisals to write.  Apparently, the Red Bead Experiment had little impact.  The quality movement was delegated away from places it was most needed.

A lot of manufacturing has now disappeared from the US and with the vanishing act we now have people from manufacturing wanting to do the same thing for service that they did for manufacturing.  Well-intended again but please let’s not do for service and government what was done for manufacturing, we are running out of industries to have fail.

The new focus seems to be on other short-cuts like sharing services, outsourcing and IT.  Sharing services and outsourcing are for the most part more short-term thinking as they economies of scale thinking prevails (at great cost – economies of flow are more effective).  IT has rarely delivered the promise of being more efficient or effective – not that it can’t be but it has become an industry of its own and efficiency and effectiveness has given way to selling more software and hitting schedules, not improving the companies or people they support.

So . . . yes I was a toolhead before being one was fashionable.  Lessons learned . . . there is no going back.

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Make the new decade a profitable and rewarding one, start a new path here.  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about how to get started at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at or LinkedIn at

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